Welcome to the home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance and general internet tinkerer. Most of my writing these days is happening over at Why is this interesting?, a daily email full of interesting stuff. This site has been around since 2004. Feel free to get in touch. Good places to get started are my Framework of the Day posts or my favorite books and podcasts. Get in touch.

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The Fermi Paradox

I’ve set a reasonably modest goal for myself of writing 10 blog posts in April. Let’s see if I can get back on this bike (since I really miss it). This is post number 2.

I’ve been enjoying Julia Galef‘s Rationally Speaking podcast a lot recently. The cybersecurity episode was great, just listening to the episode on whether ideas are becoming harder to find, and I can’t resist a good Fermi Paradox conversation.

If you’re not familiar with the Fermi Paradox I would start with the excellent Wait But Why explainer. The gist of it, though, isn’t really a paradox so much as a question: “Where is everybody?” Specifically, why haven’t we encountered aliens yet? One of the more popular explanations is called the Great Filter and basically posits that either it’s incredibly rare to reach mass intelligence like humans have, we’re just the first to do it, or that we’re all about to kill each other any day now and that explains why we haven’t heard from any other space civilization. As usual, Wait But Why has a handy graphic.

In the Fermi episode of Rationally Speaking Julia Galef makes a really interesting point I hadn’t read/considered before:

Doesn’t it seem like human-level intelligence probably isn’t mindbogglingly rare if we got several part-way successes just on Earth? Wouldn’t it be a weird world in which it was pretty easy to — pretty easy in the sense that evolution did it multiple times on Earth — to create “part-way to human level”intelligence, but there was only one actual human-level intelligence in the whole universe?

Stephen Webb, who she’s interviewing, responds with this:

Well, I’m not arguing necessarily that the barrier is there, but if you look at Earth, of the 50 billion species or however many there have been, there’s only one species that is remotely capable of delivering a starfaring civilization, and that would be us. I think that’s because we have a very, very specific set of attributes that happened to enable us to do this.

It actually kind of reminds me of one of my favorite books of the last few years, The Most Human Human. The book tackles the AI question in reverse. Rather than trying to understand how to make computers more like humans it wonders how to differentiate what we do as humans from what computers can already do. (The context for the whole book is that the author, Brian Christian, is getting ready to compete as a human in the Loebner Prize, the famous competition where computers compete to see who can pass the Turing Test and fool a human into thinking they’re another human.) By flipping the perspective on the question you get very different kinds of answers.

Finally, since we’re talking about the Fermi Paradox, The Atlantic had a good piece about “Why Earth’s History Appears So Miraculous” which although it doesn’t mention Fermi, basically tackles the same questions. For instance, is it a good sign or a bad sign that we haven’t already destroyed ourselves?

So now you can imagine a world where the probability per year of nuclear war is actually 50 percent. So then the first year, the first half of worlds get nuked. Then the next year half of those survivor worlds get nuked. And so on. So in this very scary scenario—still after 70 years—if you have a big enough universe or many parallel universes, you’re still going to have some observers [left over] who say ‘Hey! It looks like we’re pretty safe!’ And again they will get a very nasty surprise when the nukes start flying.

Fun stuff!

April 3, 2018 // This post is about: , ,

Why It Seems Like Everyone is Doing that Thing

Networks are endlessly interesting. They shape the world around us like almost nothing else, yet we spend very little time thinking about them or recognizing the non-obvious ways effects they have on our world. Because we tend to think in bell curves, we get tricked by networks pretty often. For instance, we’ve all had the experience of feeling like everyone is talking about something when it turns out to be pretty self-contained to your little group. Well, some folks at USC have spent some time looking into just how networks create that illusion, which they call the majority illusion:

The majority illusion occurs when the most popular nodes are colored. Because these link to the greatest number of other nodes, they skew the view from the ground, as it were. That’s why this illusion is so closely linked to the friendship paradox.

Interestingly, the majority illusion can even show up when a node isn’t globally popular:

That might seem harmless when it comes to memes on Reddit or videos on YouTube. But it can have more insidious effects too. “Under some conditions, even a minority opinion can appear to be extremely popular locally,” say Lerman and co. That might explain how extreme views can sometimes spread so easily.

As with most things related to how ideas spread throughout networks, the more popular something is seems to be the only reliable indicator to how popular it will become.

January 3, 2016 // This post is about: , ,

On Context, Imagination, and STEM vs. ART

Go read this whole interview with John Seely Brown. It’s awesome. Here’s a few of my favorite bits.

On content versus content:

Remember that image of the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down? Well, the photo was actually cropped. Those were Americans pulling the statue down, not Iraqis. But the cropped photo reinforced this notion that the Iraqis loved us. It reshaped context. Milennials are much better at understanding that context shapes content. They play with this all the time when they remix something. It’s actually an ideal property for a 21st century citizen to have.

That’s as good an explanation of what McLuhan meant by the medium is the message as I’ve read.

On creativity versus imagination:

The real key is being able to imagine a new world. Once I imagine something new, then answering how to get from here to there involves steps of creativity. So I can be creative in solving today’s problems, but if I can’t imagine something new, than I’m stuck in the current situation.

I really like that distinction. Imagination is what drives vision, creativity is what drives execution. Both have huge amounts of value, but they’re different things.

On the dangers of a STEM-only world:

Right. That’s what we should be talking about. That’s one of the reasons I think what’s happening in STEM education is a tragedy. Art enables us to see the world in different ways. I’m riveted by how Picasso saw the world. How does being able to imagine and see things differently work hand-in-hand? Art education, and probably music too, are more important than most things we teach. Being great at math is not that critical for science, but being great at imagination and curiosity is critical. Yet how are we training tomorrow’s scientists? By boring the hell out of them in formulaic mathematics—and don’t forget I am trained as a theoretical mathematician.

Not to talk about McLuhan too much, but he also deeply believed in the value of art and artists as the visionaries for society. I think there’s obviously a lot of room here and the reality of the focus on STEM is that we have so far to go that it’s not like we’re going to wake up in a world where people only learn math and science. But I think the point is that the really interesting thoughts that come along are the ones that combine, not shockingly, the arts and sciences.

Again, just go read the whole interview. It’s great.

January 14, 2014 // This post is about: , , , , , ,

The Science of Trolls

Mother Jones has a short piece about the effects of “negative consequences of vituperative online comments for the public understanding of science” (aka comment trolling):

The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn’t a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people’s emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.

Because I can’t really let anything get away without being some sort of McLuhan reference, the conclusion pretty clearly lays out the fact that the medium is shaping the message we receive:

The upshot of this research? This is not your father’s media environment any longer. In the golden oldie days of media, newspaper articles were consumed in the context of…other newspaper articles. But now, adds Scheufele, it’s like “reading the news article in the middle of the town square, with people screaming in my ear what I should believe about it.”

January 12, 2013 // This post is about: , , , ,

The Humming Timestamp

Apparently electrical outlets give off an inaudible hum, which isn’t all that interesting in and of itself. Except that that hum changes frequency in minute ways constantly based on the supply and demand of electricity. Scientists in the UK have discovered that the hum is unique, which means it can be used to timestamp recordings. The gist:

Recordings made close to electrical power sources pick up a hum. Comparing the unique pattern of the frequencies on an audio recording with a database that has been logging these changes for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year provides a digital watermark: a date and time stamp on the recording. Philip Harrison, from JP French Associates, another forensic audio laboratory that has been logging the hum for several years, says: “Even if [the hum] is picked up at a very low level that you cannot hear, we can extract this information.”

Science is pretty crazy sometimes.

December 12, 2012 // This post is about: ,